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Burton on the Bay
by Bill Burton

Recapturing Fort Smallwood
Long-derelict park could be the crown jewel for county

You don't need a boat here.
-Fisherman who caught a bluefish of more than 16 pounds from the stone bank at Fort Smallwood Park in North County.

It was more than 20 years ago that comment was made to me as I prepared to interview the fisherman who caught a giant bluefish from shore while that very same day on the Bay more than 150 boats were trolling for blues in one of the early tournaments of Maryland Saltwater Sportsfishermen's Association. And, the fisherman was right; he had no boat, but the fish he caught was bigger than any caught that May weekend by any of the tournament's participating craft.

Had he been in the popular contest, he would have earned more than enough money to buy a serviceable boat and join the fleet of contenders on the Bay. But in fishing, one never looks back; the angler whose name I have long forgotten had the thrill of catching a big fish - one that had on its large frame more than a few meals for an entire family. And he didn't have to pay a tournament entry fee.

Fort Smallwood Park, not to be confused with Smallwood State Park on the lower Potomac, can be at times a good place to fish, crab, frolic and even overnight in a tent. Fort Smallwood was an early American fort erected to guard the entrance to the Port of Baltimore, and in the early 1800s was named for the Revolutionary hero Gen. William Smallwood; Smallwood State Park has no fort, though it was named for the same notable Southern Maryland colonist.

Fort Smallwood is located on the south side of the Patapsco River, opposite the Bethlehem Steel facility and not too far from the river's mouth. It is perhaps 10 miles from my home on Stoney Creek, and I visit it not infrequently to fish or to watch others fish and crab. Until recent years when old age slowed me down a bit, wife Lois and our kids Heather and Joel and I cross country skied there when it was covered with snow.

So it was with much satisfaction that I learned the other day the county is interested in taking over the facility at the end of Fort Smallwood Road, a once busy park just east of Rock Creek. It is on a peninsula less than five miles from the confluence of the Patapsco and Chesapeake Bay.

Returning this park to the county seems like a great idea. For many years, though it is located in the county, it has been owned and maintained by Baltimore City. I'm unable to verify how this arrangement came about, but presumably way back when, the city wanted a big waterfront park where its citizens could pursue crabbing, fishing, swimming and nature walks, picnics and just plain family fun under a shady canopy of trees.

Old timers I've talked to recall the days when they were young, and a trip from the city to Fort Smallwood was an all-day Saturday or Sunday adventure. They swam on a sandy beach, crabbed from the long pier and fished from the stones that create a barrier to keep the Patapsco from washing away the front of the park.

They remember playing inside the old fort building, which is now boarded up, and there were concession stands and bath houses. But, more recently, as the city came on hard times, so did the park - simply because there was no funding to maintain the pier, the buildings, the grounds, even keep the water and sewage facilities.

Yes, Fort Smallwood is ashambles; the only solid structures are the old long-deserted fort building - and a tiny gate house at its entrance where in warmer months admissions are taken from those who come to fish and crab. The city has leased the park to former Baltimore Clippers hockey star Gil Boisvert, who capably operates the fishing/crabbing concession and who sometimes finds the funding to provide bare necessities such as clean outhouses, mowed shaded fields and picnic tables. Few, other than fishermen or crabbers, come here anymore - though in off-season when Boisvert shuts down his business, party-goers and vandals move in. And so, the park has gotten a bad name.

It deserves better, much better, so here's hoping County Executive Janet Owens succeeds in negotiations with the City of Baltimore to recapture the fort and somehow finds the funding to bring it back to what it once was.

Owens isn't talking about buying the park; she thinks the city simply should convey the facility to the county seeing as Baltimore basically is just letting it sit there deteriorating while reaping concession fees from Boisvert. It is the county that must address the complaints of nearby residents concerning off-season activities, litter, disturbances and such. The city could care less.

Fort Smallwood Park has the potential of being the crown jewel in the county's park system. It's a big piece of land surrounded on two sides by water, with big shade trees aplenty. Sewage and plumbing problems can be fixed, the pier replaced, the fort building spruced up a bit, and once again the crowds will come.

For fishing and crabbing, not even Jonas Green Park in Annapolis with its fishing/crabbing pier on what's left of the old Severn River Bridge near the Naval Academy can touch Fort Smallwood. And, let's face it, facilities in this populous county are dismal at affording its residents and visitors the chance to cash in on the bounty of Chesapeake Bay.

Fort Smallwood has bluefish, rockfish, hardheads, white perch, spot, sea trout, hardheads, yellow perch and catfish, not to mention good crabbing. You can't buy things like that; all that's missing is a well-kept park with basic necessities to accommodate its visitors.

Since I came to Maryland in '56 as outdoor editor of the Sun, the most asked question of me has come from those who don't have boats or homes near the water: “Where can I take my kids to catch fish and crab?” The county now has the opportunity to provide an answer at a could-be scenic waterfront locale where the Patapsco will provide the bounty if we supply the facility.

Mrs. Owens deserves our support in pursuing this opportunity, and the city, considering its neglect in maintenance of a valuable piece of open space, should make that possible. Enough said

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